Adapt and Overcome

ride_along006The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

For more than a year I have been fortunate enough to photograph my local Flathead County Sheriff’s Department S.W.A.T. Team. I photographed them training, and a few times, surprisingly, I have photographed them while on call-outs as well. However, those shots are rare because we generally don’t hear about SWAT stuff until the mission is all over.

It’s hard to put into words the level of respect I have for these guys. Each is unique, but they have similar traits, habits, and core beliefs that intertwine making them a cohesive unit.

I love capturing their work in photos, but there is one downside — I’m not authorized to publish the photos.

Simply put, the photos reveal too much: identities (faces and if they run in the paper, names), tactics, certain resources and procedures that the Team does not want disclosed. For these reasons I can’t publish these pictures. In this case, the first rule of my time with the SWAT Team is, “Don’t print/post pics of the SWAT Team.”

Regardless, the project is worthwhile on a personal level. I enjoy being around these guys because, in a number of ways they remind me of my father. Good. Noble. Not itching for a fight, but always ready and willing if need be. My father, Michael James Ahearn, was a United States Marine. He died 12 years ago, but still, I listen for his voice. And I know that if he were alive today, and knew what I was up to, he’d be proud of me for this project. My father would like these guys, and believe that I am spending my talent on a worthy cause. That alone would be enough for me, but I have gained so much more in the making of these photos, I have gained an awesome collection of friends through this, and when it is all said and done, I will walk away with a fabulously unique life experience.

The backstory to Saturday night actually began back in February of this year when one of the Team members mentioned a ride along. I have been completely obsessed with the idea ever since. On this particular Saturday night all the elements fell into alignment and I got my chance. What an experience! Days later, I am still trying to wrap my head around all I have learned.

ride_along001“Here we go,” he said, as the first call came in. “This is going to be the best and the most terrifying ride of your life,” he tells me.

I met the deputy at the office a little after 8 p.m. He had told me that the best time (in terms of action) to go on a ride along was a weekend night. Things started off slow enough. He was the “Rover” for that evening, meaning he was not bound to a particular region, but rather has enough experience and knowledge to assess all the calls and decide which section he is most needed. Flathead County is just over 5,200 square miles. It runs from the Canadian border down to the top of Flathead Lake, over and around all of the Hungry Horse Reservoir and up into Glacier National Park. That is a lot of ground to patrol, with a lot of time, for a whole lot to go wrong.

ride_along005When the evening started there was a report of a grass fire in Lakeside, so we headed south. Ironically enough, five of the guys I know from SWAT were all on shift that night. That’s unusual and I couldn’t help thinking with a photographer along this would be the perfect set up for something to go really, really wrong. (Don’t worry — nothing too major happened).

We went south, down to Angel Point past Lakeside. We looped around to Lakeside Boulevard then up to Somers. In Somers we drove through a crowd gathered for the annual street dance. He said we’d probably be back there later that night as part of that crowd was “a brawl waiting to happen.” As we drove through town and toward the water I couldn’t help noticing the nearly full moon hanging low over Flathead Lake contrasted against the hazy pink smoke from the fire. It would have made a lovely photo and since we weren’t needed anywhere he was about to stop so I could take a scenic shot. It was not meant to be.

ride_along002Just like that the first call came in, and the race began. We need to be 16 miles north of our current location. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when the lights and sirens come on and you’re suddenly listening to that big Chevy engine max out on the RPMs and then you are flying up the road, 16 miles is terrifying, exhilarating, and when you know there is a person who needs help instantly, it takes an eternity to cover the distance.

I was on edge for the ride. Not because of the speed. I trust the driver. It’s all the other people on the road making this a death-defying misadventure. We leave Somers and get to the 93, heading north. There are two lanes heading north and in the (warped) minds some people that means when they see an emergency vehicle racing away they don’t really need to stop. It’s perfectly OK if they simply get over. If they get out of the fast lane, and maybe slow down, that will be sufficient.

So NOT true.

At those speeds, too many things can go wrong. An oblivious driver can fail to notice the lights and pull into the left lane. Where then does the emergency responder go? If he’s forced off the road he is in serious danger. If the other drivers have merely slowed down he can’t just run them off the road because that’s also dangerous and there are few things these guys take more seriously than the taking of an innocent life. What choices is he left with?

Please, pull over. Please get out of the way. Use your turn signal so he knows that you have seen them and then, for the sake of all that is good and kind and just and true in the universe, stop your car. It really won’t make you that late. And who knows, the life you save, might be your own.

ride_along003We raced up to the scene of a motor vehicle accident with a non-responsive victim. By the time we got there, four other deputies were on the scene as well as the ambulance and I think Highway Patrol. So, we didn’t need to stick around. But you don’t know that when you hear the call. All you hear is someone in a threatening situation and needs help right now. Go.

From 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. we were pretty much driving and taking calls non-stop. There was the car vs. deer where one of the people in the vehicle was a week away from her due date. Ambulance got called out to that one. Barking dogs. Miscreants running around neighborhoods. Brawling brothers. Domestic calls. A road rage incident. Traffic incidents. A driver who smelled of alcohol and drove his vehicle up over a series of large rocks get himself well and truly stuck. A burglar alarm triggered at a business. And to top it all off, random driving to look for and stop trouble before it really got started.

ride_along008Some moments of the night were fun. Others left me feeling hyper aware of all the ways a situation might turn out badly. When I first got in the truck, I signed my ride along waver and was given my rule for the evening: “Don’t leave the truck.” I wasn’t there as a journalist on scene. I was with the Sheriff’s deputies so, that profoundly changed my role. For one thing, I was closer than I would ever be in my role as a newspaper photographer. I was certainly there a whole lot faster than I could ever arrive on my own.

It’s hard to watch a friend step out and make the approach and not know whether this seemingly innocuous traffic stop is going to get wildly out of control. One of the stops we made this guy was fishing around his back seat and grabbed something from the back and pulled it forward as my friend approached. That kind of panicked my brain. I start wondering, what is it? Is it a gun? Is he going to be shot? Again, this isn’t because I don’t trust the deputy to be smart enough and strong enough. He’s been doing this for years. I see them train all the time. I trust that the odds are actually in his favor most of the time. But bad things can still happen.

For one of the calls we arrived en masse: two deputies ahead of us and a Montana Highway Patrolman following. The four vehicles take the long rough driveway. Our lights completely off and we are following closely trying not to be sucked into any major pot holes or ruts. He told me later the time that is most dangerous for law enforcement is the arrival. They try to approach as quietly and unobtrusively as they can. We get there and the first deputy to go inside is one of my other friends. Followed quickly by the guy I am riding with. Then the third deputy and the patrolman. As I am stuck out in the truck. Not knowing what is going on and left to wait and wonder about the safety of people I care about, good friends.

ride_along007This was not the easiest experience. In one night I found out my nice, sweet, idyllic little town has a dark side. Drugs. Sex. Skinheads. Violence. I don’t usually see those things. This night I was presented with a moment of truth I can no longer ignore — my nice, safe, protected existence is only possible because of these guys — the ones who put their lives on the line every day. On the one hand, it makes me sad, that the world is darker than I knew, darker than it should be. On the other hand, I am profoundly grateful.

What was most interesting to me was the philosophy talk. What makes you do this? Why do you choose this life? How do you approach your work? What means the most to you about this job?

The answer is actually the Team. The guys have a wonderful camaraderie. I’ve seen them laughing and razzing each other at training, but they carry that sense of humor over into their jobs because, even for the toughest, it can’t be all bad all the time. Everyone needs a bit of levity. Around 2 a.m. we drove down to a gas station for a quick break which consisted of fruit juice and butterfingers. Two of the Team drove over to a car lot for a few minutes to “debrief,” i.e. share a few laughs and relax for a nanosecond as they waited for the next call to come in. They didn’t have to wait for long.

ride_along009Why do this? Why SWAT? I’ve asked this question of other guys on the Team and I was not surprised to hear this deputy give the same answer. “For the people and for our brothers.” Being a Sheriff’s Deputy is dangerous enough. These guys take on an added level of responsibility. Not only do they have to give more of their time to advanced training, they are on call for victims who are facing the worst situations, as well as for their brothers — their fellow deputies — who find themselves facing circumstances that have or can escalate beyond one person’s ability to control.

We had long conversations about leadership, discipline, accountability, institutional inertia, the “educational” approach, and the consequences to choice we all make. He referred to his job as being at the “leading edge of life.” The tempo was something I will not soon forget.

Normally I keep this blog as a way to share my photos and the stories that go with them. But the photos that I have to illustrate this incredible night are secondary at best. I tried to make my work about the detail shots, things that I can show without showing too much, by the end of the night I had already put my camera away because even in my life, photography is not all that there is. And though I don’t have a ton of awesome photos to share from this, I still wanted to write all this down. You see, I’ve come away from my ride along with a desire to do something. To somehow, some way, show my gratitude and respect. To say thank you to those who cannot possibly be thanked enough.

ride_along010Final thoughts…

I am leaving my night with a million thoughts and emotions swirling around in my brain. I am leaving with a greater awareness of things that mar the perfection of my photographer’s heaven. But I leave reassured because there are good, kind, brave, dedicated souls who are giving their time, talent, wisdom, and even their lives, to fight the good fight. I am more aware than I have ever been. I am feeling more fortunate than ever that they have let me in to make these photos (even if I can’t publish them). And I am more grateful than ever before to the ones who watch over, and keep us all safe.

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Combining loves…

dance_coverI love being a photographer. I love it. I love it every day. I love those moments when I capture something special. Something beautiful. Something thought provoking. Something creative. I love the way photography invites me to see the world more dramatically. To visually explore. To take life in and not let it merely pass by. I love the people I get to meet. The stories I get to tell. The moments I get to experience and document and make a lasting record of. I am a photographer is no longer a statement about my career. It is a declaration of purpose — a self-definition. And for a lot of years I thought photographer would be one definition I would always cling to.

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The lovely Miss Hana and the infamous Pete Milne.

A few years ago I was on a photo shoot for the Daily Inter Lake of a dance in Kalispell. The way this began is this guy named Pete Milne had stopped by our office at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. In all honesty at 4:30 p.m. when I am leaving at 5 for a three day weekend I care about very little beyond actually leaving. So, when Pete stopped in my only real concern was about how long I would have to be polite until I could kindly usher him out the door and get my stuff and go home. He came by to tell me that that evening they were going to be having a swing dance at the Sassafras ballroom. There would be people dressed up in vintage clothing and that it could be a really fun,  and highly photogenic night. I think I nodded. I probably smiled. Politely got his name and number. And mentally blew him off. My weekend was about to start. Who could ask for anything more?

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Chris Walters, a new friend, dancing with Miss Hana.

Brenda Ahearn PhotographyIt took me the length of the newsroom to realize that he was right. That this would make a fun photo package and it could fill the Montana Life section, a section we love, but often find difficult to find worthy subjects for. So, I get back to my desk and call the guy… I need directions to the Sassafras (which I had never heard of) so I can be there at 8 p.m.

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Andrew Byl, formerly of Bozeman, who still comes back to Montana for dances and the great outdoors, and the lovely Miss Sarah Etzler, dressed up to the nines and looking stunning.

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Galen King! Such an amazing dancer.

I thank God for that decision. Isn’t it odd how the smallest decisions, the tiniest, most insignificant choices, become the ones that steer our lives and set our courses? On that Friday I decided to go see this swing dancing stuff. And I completely fell in love.

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It isn’t just the friends from out of town that make these weekends special. There are also wonderful opportunities to see my local friends are gussied up and stunning. Here is April Szuch with Pete Milne.

I fell in love with the music. I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the smiles. With the moves. With the girls in their vintage. With Pete and Joe Juneman, dressed up to the nines, and brave enough to stand in the circle in the center of the room,  teaching the beginner lesson for leads and follows.

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I had to send Tyler de Caussin a note about this photo. I loved that he found his way into the best light of the night and he took Miss Hana Hoch with him.

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Matthew and Miss Irina.

I took the photos. They did run as a Montana Life. But that wasn’t enough for me. I was hooked. Turns out that not long after this the instructors who had taught our leaders were coming to Montana for a workshop. And it just so happened to fall on one of my three day weekends. That’s where I met Ben White and Peter Flahiff for the first time. How many times have I taken their workshop now? I honestly don’t know. I took the beginner track with Ben over and over because dancing is well outside my normal comfort zone. And slowly, slowly I improved. Got better. Began to dance more. And made some wonderful friends.

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Pete and his girl the lovely Miss Caitlin Hills. Caitlin is one of my favorite people to photograph. She is always open an authentic.

One of the things I love about swing dancing is the kind of people it draws in. Swing dancing isn’t a romantic dance. It’s social dancing. You dance with anyone, and everyone. And there are smiles and sweetness and tons of hugs. And there is beauty, and grace, and style, and vitality, and passion, and charisma and charm. And slowly my circle expanded to Missoula and then Bozeman and now I am friends with people around the state and even friends within the surrounding states. And I LOVE them. I love each and every one of them. And love the workshops that bring us all back together.

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New friends Matthew Isenor of Calgary and Irina Amzashvili in from California. Just Wow.

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Peter Flahiff and Miss Irina Amzashvili. They were so much fun to watch.

I’m going to fast forward through the years of dancing to this year. This year I went dancing on New Year’s Eve. I spent the most of the evening with the crew from North End Swing. When that dance shut down I went to Bigfork with Clara and Hana and spent that first moments of the brand new year dancing to The Company Brass and experiencing a happiness beyond description. Little did I know that that New Year’s Eve dance would set the tone for the year ahead.

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The lovely Sara Kremer and Ethan Olson. Two of the Bozemanites we are always delighted to have join us.

This has been a year of firsts for me with dancing. I went to my first dance out of the state (in Spokane). As it happened I was going to be in Spokane at the same time Lindy Exchange was happening. I wasn’t going to go, but I saw some of the dancers over lunch and they talked me into it. And I am so glad they did. Then a few weeks later I went to my first dance in Tacoma followed the next night by a dancing at Eastside Stomp! Ben and Peter’s venue in Seattle. Wow. Now I’m looking forward to the day when I am brave enough to go dancing out of the country. And since I’ve just made friends up in the Calgary scene, that day may not be too far off. And who knows, maybe some day I will be lucky enough (and brave enough) to attend the international swing dancing camp in Herräng, Sweden.

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Peter Flahiff and others watching Kalispell’s first Jam Session.

This past weekend Peter and Ben were in town again. This time with some of our favorite teachers we’ve known in the past like the lovely Miss Taylor Stender and a crop of wonderful new instructors and dancers from as far away as California and Calgary. In my opinion, the workshop could be renamed: Montana Swing Dancers Reunion. Half the fun of the weekends is just getting to see one another, and share smiles and laughs and hugs with the people we know and love and are connected to because of dancing.

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I love this photo of my teacher Ben White dancing with the truly talented Miss Jena Applegarth at Eastside Stomp near Seattle, Washington.

The best part of this past workshop for me came in two pieces. One, I got to put Ben and Peter and Galen and Ethan and Gavin and Jonathan and Keaton and Gwenn in the paper. We did another Montana Life feature on these instructors who keep coming back.

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Galen and Andrew.

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Peter and Hana.

Swing dancing entered my life via photography. In many ways my camera is a safe zone for me. When I am behind the lens I know who I am, I know what I am doing, and I am confident in my ability to do what needs to be done and to do it well. And…best of all, it is a safe zone that travels with me. Having that personal safety zone allowed me the time and space I needed to really grow comfortable with dancing. I could photograph a few songs, and if a slower song came on, and if I was feeling brave, then I could put the camera down and go dance. I’ve gotten to the point now that sometimes I don’t even bring my camera when I am dancing. Sometimes, I only want to dance.

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Andrew dancing with Miss Caroline Donovan, one of the dancers I got to meet on my trip to Seattle, who traveled all the way out here to join us.

And other times, I know I won’t be content unless I capture the event on film. That’s what this most recent Big Sky Workshop provided. Peter and Ben, and Taylor and Matt, and Irina and so many others. Friends from Montana. Friends I thought were not going to be able to come, like Tyler. Friends from Washington. Plus all my lovely friends from right here in Kalispell. And everyone dress up and looking gorgeous. Back in the Sassafras. I didn’t get to dance too much on Saturday because I was too busy running around with my camera. I wish I could have had a few more dances, but there will always be more time for that. For this night, I was happy to have my camera in my hands. I still have video clips I need to edit, but for now I wanted to share the photos.

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Nick Pike and Marissa Lewis, two more of the Seattle people who joined us. It is such a treat to have these amazing people come so far. They bring such joy with them.

And I wanted to share the way these people and this music have blessed my life so much. I wish I could show that in the photos. I love it. I LOVE all of it. Swing dancing is something I hope to be doing for the rest of my life. Dancing and photographing. Photographer. Dancer. There are many words that define me and define my life, but those are two definitions I am particularly delighted to lay claim to. They are labels that I choose. And labels I am proud of.

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Pete and Miss Irina.

12:44 a.m. text messages are awesome!

fb_aurora_borealis3158 It’s 12:44 a.m. It has been an outrageously long day. The dancers are in town for the workshop. There are three more days of classes and dances to be prepared for. Life is outrageously good, but overwhelmingly busy. Then your phone starts beeping. This isn’t my normal alarm clock beep, and not the beep of a call coming in. It’s my work phone. And it is the loudest, most obnoxious sound I can find because this is where I get my text messages from dispatch alerting me to fires and car wrecks and all the other things I have to cover at the drop of a hat. I groan. Make myself get out of bed to get the phone. I keep my phone just out of reach because if I can stay in bed and “accidentally” turn it off,  I may not get out of bed at all. But the message isn’t from dispatch, it’s from a friend who works for the Sheriff’s Department. “Northern lights are over big mountain!” … Ok. … Go!

I have never seen the Northern Lights. I remember hearing of them when I was child, seeing videos of the dance across the sky and dreaming that some day I would get the chance to visit Alaska or Norway or wherever, so I could see them for myself. As it happens, Kalispell, Montana at 48 degrees North is north enough to see the Aurora Borealis. Still, I’ve been here three and half years with no sign of them. So when that text came in, suddenly it doesn’t matter that I am sleep deprived, or that the next few days are going to be exhausting. All that matters is I need to be outside, with my camera, RIGHT NOW!

I grabbed my clothes, boots, camera, and keys and was out the door in minutes.

fb_aurora_borealis3161Wow. What a sight. From my back porch (which is near downtown) it was hard to discern the difference between the Northern Lights and the light pollution. Where to go? Answer: call the friend who sent the text. He sent me south of town toward Highway 40. I actually got on JP Road and this was where I got my first clear view and fell instantly in love.

As I said, I had never seen the lights, I had no idea how long they would last. That uncertainty led to some moments of silliness on my part. I was speeding and scrambling and not really thinking about compositions early on. Luckily there is a bridge on JP Road and as I crossed that I suddenly knew exactly what was needed — water. If the sky is gorgeous, find water to reflect the sky and voila! twice as much sky. This is an ancient photography rule. One I know well. It wasn’t until after I crossed the bridge that I figured that one out. But finding that bridge actually set the tone for the night.

fb_aurora_borealis3173After JP Road, I went to Whitefish State Park. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about this one. To get to the beach, at 1:30 in the morning, you have drive through the camp ground. People are sleeping. People are missing the Northern Lights, but I’m not their alarm clock. Maybe they don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night the noise of my Jeep engine and me stumbling around in the dark looking for the beach. Note to self: even the places I have visited before become uncertain and difficult to navigate in the pitch black dark of night.

As my friend had been able to see the lights from Bigfork (about 50 minutes south) I started wondering if I might be too close. That decision set the tone for the rest of the night. I was out until 4 a.m. basically working my way south to Kalispell and east.

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fb_aurora_borealis3209My favorite photo of the night is the next one… Actually, this is one of my favorite moments in my life. And it came at 4 in the morning. The sky began to pulse. I can’t think of a better word for it. It was as if the energy behind the lights was sending out waves or blasts that quietly electrified the sky and caused the Northern Lights to really dance. I have no words for this. I can’t really explain what I saw, or what I felt. It was a moment of a lifetime for me and one I shall never forget. There was, standing beside the retaining wall on the bridge on Highway 35 that crosses the Flathead River. This is NOT a safe place to stand. Especially at 4 a.m. when all is dark and the drunks are out. But this was the view I wanted and this was where the show became it’s most spectacular.

fb_aurora_borealis3219In most cases, photography is inferior to human vision. The eye can discern more than 200 shades of gray. Cameras aren’t that lucky. In slide film there are five f-stops between black and color. On negative film there are nine. Digital I’m told runs between 11 and 13. But there is something a camera can do that the eye can’t. It can collect cumulative light. Long exposures. All of these images were shot with a tripod, something I seldom do. The exposures ran from 30 seconds up to one minute. By letting the light play over longer periods it’s effects are made more visible. The Lights were incredible to see. Nothing like them in my life. The Lights on film are even more dramatic, even if they don’t convey quite the same level of power as the pulsing sky.

fb_aurora_borealis3222It wasn’t the rising moon that put a halt to the show. It was the dawn. This was the first time I can ever remember wishing dawn would hold off, wait… Of course, it didn’t. The sun continued to climb and slowly the white light of new day began to wash out the other worldly green.

fb_aurora_borealis3240I have now seen the Northern Lights. Seen, and instantly loved. Instead of being ready to cross this item off my bucket list, I’ve moved it to the top. I want to see them again. And again. And again. I want to see the sky dance.

And… I want more photographs.